Republicans are warily eyeing the resurgence of coronavirus cases in states critical to President Trump’s reelection in November, as much rides on the country’s ability to continue economic reopening without worsening the pandemic.
The recent spike in COVID-19 cases has led to some Republican governors aligned with Trump reinstating some, though not all, of the restrictions that were in place during the lockdowns and federal GOP officials expressing more support for wearing facial coverings in public.
Vice President Mike Pence has resumed a busier public schedule for the coronavirus task force, which held its first briefing in two months on Friday to help allay growing concerns. “Our focus today is very much on the advent of a rising series of new cases across the American South,” Pence said, addressing must-win states for the ticket this fall. Pence donned a mask in Texas on Sunday.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, on Tuesday repeated his call for the president to start doing the same. “The president has plenty of admirers,” he said. “They would follow his lead. It would help end this political debate. The stakes are too high for this political debate … to continue.” On Sunday, Alexander told CNN, “I’m just saying, if wearing masks is important, and all the health experts tell us that it is in containing the disease in 2020, it would help if, from time to time, the president would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate that says if you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask, and if you’re against Trump, you do.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed face masks on Monday, saying there should be “no stigma” attached to them. “Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves,” the Kentucky Republican said. “It is about protecting everyone we encounter.”
“The president has said he has no problem with masks, that he encourages people to make whatever decision is best for their safety and to follow what their local jurisdictions say,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany at Tuesday’s briefing. “CDC guidelines are still recommended, but not required. And the president is the most tested man in America. It’s his decision whether to wear a mask.”
Republican governors in Texas, Florida, and Arizona all followed Trump’s lead in reopening relatively early. Now, all three have closed the bars again in their states. National Democratic groups are on the air in these key battlegrounds with anti-Trump ads focusing on coronavirus management. Trump is trailing in Florida, where the Republican National Convention is to be held next month, while Arizona and even Texas, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, are too close to call.
“These governors are trying to balance saving their economies with public health, and there are no easy answers,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Higher positivity rates are only part of the story, as hospitalizations have been overstated, and the death rate has dropped sharply. Pausing the reopenings while they try to contain outbreaks is the wise choice at this point. The question is, what will they do if a pause is not enough?”
That’s also the dilemma for Trump, who has largely staked his reelection on an economic reopening that puts people back to work without devastating public health consequences. The latest polling from the Pew Research Center found that many of the voters who have shifted from approving to disapproving of his performance in office since March live in areas hardest hit by the coronavirus. Nationally, respondents said they preferred Democratic challenger Joe Biden to handle the outbreak by an 11-point margin, 52% to 41% for Trump.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a top Trump ally, has worked especially hard to defend his state’s coronavirus management, in contrast with Democratic governors of hot spots who have nevertheless been praised by the media, such as Andrew Cuomo. Florida’s official coronavirus death toll was 3,419 on Sunday, compared to 24,835 in Cuomo’s New York. The numbers are even lower for Texas and Arizona.
“I give Gov. DeSantis the highest marks possible for his performance during the entire pandemic,” said local Republican strategist Jamie Miller. “He has taken measured, reasonable steps to close, open, and now closing bars only. Even under the most conservative models in March, Florida is performing much better than anyone expected.”
But epidemiologists stress that deaths are a lagging indicator, so the increases in cases and hospitalizations in these 2020 battlegrounds bear watching. Trump plans to forge ahead with campaign rallies and praise for reopening.
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